Sunday, March 6, 2011

China tracks foreign journalists


Western journalists have lately been tolerated in China, if grudgingly, but the spread of revolution in the Middle East has prompted the authorities here to adopt a more familiar tack: suddenly, foreign reporters are being tracked and detained in the same manner -- though hardly as roughly -- as political dissidents.

On Sunday, about a dozen European and Japanese journalists in Shanghai were herded into an underground bunkerlike room and kept for two hours after they sought to monitor the response to calls on an anonymous Internet site for Chinese citizens to conduct a "strolling" protest against the government outside the Peace Cinema, near People's Square in Shanghai.

In Beijing, several plainclothes officers planted themselves on Saturday night outside the home of an American correspondent who was severely beaten by security officers the previous week as he sought to cover a similar Internet-inspired protest there. Seven officers in two separate cars then trailed the reporter to a basketball game on Sunday, recording his trip on video the entire time, correspondents said.

At least a dozen other journalists and photographers were visited in their homes over the weekend and repeatedly warned not to cause trouble -- or, as one officer put it, try to "topple the party."
The intimidation of foreign journalists is a marked shift for the Chinese authorities and a sign of the government's resolve to head off any antigovernment revolts like those that have swept the Middle East and North Africa during the past two months.

Anonymous Chinese-language posts on the Internet have called for people to show their discontent with the central government by taking a "stroll" at 2 p.m. every Sunday outside well-known locations in Beijing, Shanghai and several dozen other cities. Efficient mobilization of the nation's extensive security apparatus has helped ensure that no protests have materialized.

Indeed, the news has been limited to the government's crackdown on the foreign news media. The Olympic Games in August 2008 initiated a relaxation of reporting rules for the foreign media, culminating in a decree signed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that essentially removed the need for journalists to seek government permission for interviews.

But the past 10 days have reversed that momentum. A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry warned journalists on Thursday that they should not rely on the 2008 decree "as a shield."

David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong, said: "They have gone into control mode once again. What we are seeing now, in the short term, is China is closing in on itself, because it doesn't have another answer or response."

He added: "Intimidation of journalists is the classic response. It is not necessarily entirely new, but it is something we have not seen for a long time."

Over the weekend, the police called or visited more than a dozen foreign journalists at their homes, including reporters and photographers for The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN, NBC and Bloomberg News. One person said he received a knock on his door as early as 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. Another was not home when a police officer called, but a child who answered the phone was reportedly interrogated.

A third said an officer told him that the Public Security Ministry's Guobao -- or domestic security arm -- was in charge of the operation to keep foreign journalists in line. That department also keeps track of dissidents.

"In 10 years living in these parts, this kind of unannounced call was a first," said the reporter, who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Journalists were told to abide by the rules and warned not to report on protests. Several journalists said over Twitter that one colleague had been ordered by the police to sign a document explicitly saying the journalist would never again report on the so-called Jasmine Revolution in China; the journalist refused.

At least four journalists have reported what appeared to be the hacking of their Gmail accounts, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.

The intensified scrutiny came as China released budget figures showing that for the first time annual spending on law enforcement and public security would outstrip the military budget. The government said it planned to spend $95 billion on the police, state security, armed civil militia and jails, 13.8 percent more than last year. Military spending rose 12.7 percent to $91.5 billion.

The anxiety of the Chinese government was on full display on Sunday afternoon at Wangfujing, Beijing's upscale pedestrian shopping street, and another shopping district called Xidan, both near the Forbidden City. Anonymous organizers had urged protesters to gather outside the McDonald's on Wangfujing for a public revolt modeled after the one that toppled Tunisia's government in January. China countered it with the kind of smothering security blanket that in many countries is reserved for visits by heads of state.

Security officers and volunteers were present every few feet on both sides of Wangfujing and on side streets. There were police officers in black uniforms; civilian volunteers wearing red armbands; men dressed as street sweepers and officers disguised in plain jackets with telltale black wires running from inside their jackets to earpieces. Many of these men had crew cuts and carried videocameras or small shoulder bags; those with videocameras would occasionally take shots of the crowds.

Security vehicles of every stripe -- squad cars, vans, unmarked buses with few windows -- were parked on all corners.

Throngs of shoppers and tourists strolled the street, which is lined with luxury stores and includes a food alleyway with live scorpions squirming on a stick. The police seemed to be resorting to racial profiling to weed out foreign journalists. While Asians appeared to encounter little or no harassment, officers flanked by burly Chinese men pulled aside white foreigners to check their passports.

Uniformed police officers stood in a line across the north entrance of Wangfujing, eyeing everyone who entered. In midafternoon, large street-cleaning vehicles rolled up and down, spraying water to disperse pedestrians.

Fake construction-site walls that had been erected last week outside the front entrance of McDonald's blocked the plaza there.

Customers had to enter through the side, where plainclothes security officers loitered on the steps.

No one gathered outside.